Why teaching history is essential to the survival of democracy


Canadians are at war for their history.

The CBC series Canada: our history provoked outrage in the spring of 2017 with the choices made for its historic scenario. Critics called the series Anglocentric and said it omitted the roles of Acadians and Mi’kmaq.

Statues and names of prominent Canadians have also been the focus of vigorous debate across the country this year. One of these debates focused on the statue of Edward Cornwallis in a public park in Halifax – the military officer who founded Halifax for the British in 1749, but also offered a cash bounty to anyone who killed an Aboriginal. They also included calls by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (EFTO) to remove the name of so-called “genocide architect” Sir John A. Macdonald from elementary schools across the province.

Amid debates over renaming public buildings across the country, our public history is hotly contested. And Canada is not alone. As demonstrated by the protests and counter-protests regarding the public commemoration of Civil War figures in the United States, history is of significant public concern in many places around the world.

For history teachers like me, the good news is that audiences obviously care a lot about history. The bad news is that we can’t talk about it without resorting to name calling, vitriolic and sometimes, as recent events in Charlottesville testify, violence.

I believe that teaching history is more important than ever. History, if funded and well taught, can teach tolerance for ambiguity. It can provide people with strategies to help them think through complex problems.

War, and war memorials in particular, are central to collective memory. Well taught, war offers windows into the construction of personal and national identity.

Between virtue and evil

Our public discourse has become dangerously polarized, making democratic deliberation on collective memory, history and the common good almost impossible.

Reflecting on the 2017 French elections, French political scientist Nicole Bacharan described the worry and stress resulting from “the division of the country and the hatred that emanates from groups of people who cannot discuss anything, cannot understand each other, cannot can’t speak.

Bacharan is only one of many voices deploring the poverty of civic discourse in democratic jurisdictions around the world. The debates over public history facilities are a manifestation of this larger trend. I think they illustrate an important aspect of this toxic polarization – an apparent inability to deal with nuance.

Activists protest at the foot of the Edward Cornwallis statue after city staff covered it with a black sheet in Halifax on July 15, 2017.
(CANADIAN PRESS / Darren Calabrese)

Citizens want things to be kept simple. In their view, the historical figures or events depicted in public memorials are either iconic representations of virtue and progress that should exist forever, or they are manifestations of evil and should be demolished. There does not seem to be any room for complex alternatives.

The problem is, life is complicated and full of nuances. We like that the line between our heroes and our villains is clear, but as Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn points out in The Gulag Archipelago:

“If only there were some bad people out there who were insidiously doing bad deeds, and it was enough to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line that separates good and evil runs through the heart of every human being. And who is ready to destroy a piece of their own heart? ”

Teach history, teach complexity

I am convinced that contemporary approaches to history teaching can help citizens develop the tolerance for complexity and ambiguity necessary to effectively engage in civic life.

Over the past half century, there has been an explosion of theoretical and empirical research related to the teaching of history, and there is a growing consensus around the world on what constitutes effective teaching and learning. in the field. Some key elements of this consensus include:

• The teaching of history must go beyond the transmission of what historians know to include attention to the historical method – how historians know. This is often called historical thinking.

• History teaching should include attention to historical awareness, or how history and memory work to shape how we think about ourselves, our communities, and our place in the world.

• There are many places where one can learn history, including classrooms, historic sites, museums, patriotic ceremonies and family events.

• History teaching should prompt students to think about what constitutes evidence of the past and how we assess and construct accounts of the past.

• Research data clearly shows that students, even those in elementary school, can learn to think in sophisticated and complex ways about the past and its relationship to the present and the future.

• Effective history teaching requires well-trained and competent teachers.

History as an educational priority

While this consensus exists among scholars and many history teachers around the world, the conditions in the classroom or auditorium are often very different.

One of the main problems is that the teaching of the humanities – and the teaching of history in particular – has become a priority area of ​​public education in Canada and around the world.

The figure of Canada Bereft, also known as Mother Canada mourning the loss of her children, overlooks Vimy Ridge at the National Memorial of Canada at Vimy, France.

Traditionally, social studies was considered one of the main areas of the curriculum, but policy changes over the past 30 years – in New Brunswick, across Canada and around the world – have focused on subjects considered more immediately useful for promoting employment, in particular in technical fields.

Several other key factors limit the implementation of effective history teaching. These include a persistent focus on nation building rather than developing critical skills, and assigning teachers with little or no history experience to teach courses in the region.

War and collective memory

Colleagues and I at the University of New Brunswick’s Gregg Center for the Study of War and Society have developed an extensive history teaching program to complement the Centre’s well-established work in history.

At the heart of this initiative is the collaboration between historians, history teachers and educators – to develop materials and approaches that implement the consensus on effective history teaching described above.

We believe that the theme of war and society offers a potentially effective way to do this for several reasons:

• Subjects in the field are often presented as iconic and, as Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan points out in The Uses and Abuses of History, part of the purpose of teaching history is to question and study The icons.

• War and war memorials are often central to collective memory and provide a window into the construction of personal and national identity.

• War appears in school curricula, museums, family traditions and community memorials. This provides an opportunity to bring the community into the classroom, as well as to examine the relationships between the past, present, and future.

• Virtually all elements of the study of war and society, including community memorials, are contested. This gives students the opportunity to examine various historical perspectives.

• The issues involved are multi-layered and complex. As historian Tim Cook notes in his recent book on the Canadian Vimy Ridge Memorial: “Vimy, like all legends, is a web of stories, myths, wishful thinking and conflicting tales.

Research from around the world shows that fostering the capacities of young citizens to tackle these complex and difficult issues lays the foundation for improved civic discourse in the future.

We do not want to end the debates on our history; we hope to make them more substantial and fruitful.


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